Operation Rice Bowl helps real people, speaker says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thomas Awiapo knows just how important the contents of small containers are. Awiapo, who works for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana, only went to school when he was a boy because of the small snack the school provided at the beginning of the day.

"They tricked me into going to school,” said Awiapo, who visited the Archdiocese of Chicago Feb. 27-March 1 as part of an eight week trip to the United States to speak about the work of CRS. “I hated school. But if I went, they gave me a snack. And at the end of the day, there was a hot meal.”

That food helped Awiapo grow and thrive. Orphaned before he was 10 years old — he doesn’t remember precisely how old he was when his parents died — two of his older siblings also died, and one left his village. He has not seen that brother in 37 years. Awiapo stayed, and took the snacks and meals from the school Catholic Relief Services built in his village.

Now a CRS global solidarity coordinator in Ghana, he holds a master’s degree in public administration from California State University, is married and has four children of his own, who do not need food to bribe them to go to school.

“I can give them three meals a day,” he said.

But there are still poor children in Ghana whose families cannot give them enough food, or provide clean water, or pay for education.

“Now my job is to trick other children into going to school,” Awiapo said.

Part of his job this year is also to thank American Catholics who donate to Operation Rice Bowl, Catholic Relief Services’ annual campaign that reminds participants to pray for the hungry around the world, fast from things that get between them and being in solidarity with the poor and give alms. The centerpiece of the campaign, small cardboard “rice bowl” shaped banks, are meant to be a visual reminder; participants who choose, for example, to “fast” by giving up a daily cup of coffee can put the money they would have spent in the rice bowl.

“It’s like the story of the 10 lepers,” Awiapo said. “Only one came back to thank Jesus. I am coming to say thank you, but I am coming to say thank you for everyone.”

To help achieve solidarity, CRS offers calendars with suggestions for activities and recipes for inexpensive meals that might be prepared by people who live in the countries where it serves. This year’s offerings include riz national, a bean and rice dish from Haiti, or pescado al horno, a fish recipe from the Philippines. Families that prepare those meals can contribute the difference in cost between a typical meal and the Rice Bowl meal to the campaign as well.

“People sometimes ask me if that money adds up, and I am here to tell you that it does add up,” said Awiapo.

In 2012, the most recent year for which CRS’ annual report is available, Operation Rice Bowl raised $6.5 million, about 3.3 percent of what CRS received in private donations.

But in addition to raising money, the program also raises awareness of the needs of hungry people around the world and here in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and solidarity with them, said Joanna Arellano, coordinator for CRS and Catholic Campaign for Human Development programs for the archdiocese’s Office for Peace and Justice.

The office this year created a two-minute video, “On Second Thought,” to encourage Catholics to use Operation Rice Bowl and to think twice about how their choices affect poor people (to watch, visit In the archdiocese, 65 percent of what is collected goes to international relief and development in 100 different countries and 35 percent stays in the archdiocese to help fund local anti-hunger programs, including church-based food pantries, soup kitchens and community gardens.

In Ghana, CRS funding goes to many projects, some of which overlap. For example, CRS helps pay to drill wells to provide clean water in villages. Since carrying water is traditionally a chore for women and girls, giving them access to water in their villages gives them more time to devote to economic activity, CRS also has microfinance programs to help women start home-based businesses or schools.

Wells often are located at school, not only to give the children access to clean water during the day but to get the girls to come to the school. There are also maternal-child health programs and agricultural programs in Ghana. Some of the products are partnerships with the government, Awiapo said.

“We have a lot of success because we have community partners engaged,” he said.

While he misses his family when he is in the United States, Awiapo said he understands the need to share the message.

“The biggest message I have to share is just to put a face on the work CRS does overseas,” he said. “I am here to thank people for participating in CRS Rice Bowl for nearly 40 years. I am here to say it really, really adds up and makes a difference for millions of people around the world.”

For more information, visit


  • catholic relief services
  • operation rice bowl

Related Articles